LINCOLN — Dylan Utter has technically been a center for most of his Nebraska career. The role was just fastened to contingency plans.
If so-and-so got hurt. Or if his primary position got too crowded. Or if some crazy in-game scenario unfolded.
Utter was an emergency option, asked to learn the position and to stay ready — but never in a full-time capacity. Until January.
Utter is Nebraska’s center. The chief of the offensive line. The guy who directs traffic at the line of scrimmage, reading defenses and shouting out blocking assignments.
And he couldn’t be more enthused about the responsibility.
“My whole football career, I think, I’ve always played every position but center — but I’ve been a backup center,” Utter said. “So now, being in that solidified position, it is kind of comforting.”
Nebraska coaches say he’s a natural fit.
He’s an astute player, able to adapt and react in the high-pressure moments. It’s helped, too, that he’s devoted the extra hours in the offseason to the mental side of the game. He’s stronger and more agile. There’s a pride he shows daily, according to O-line coach Mike Cavanaugh, so you know he won’t back away from meeting a certain high standard.
“He’s a smart guy who works hard,” Cavanaugh said. “He’s comfortable there. I just think it’s a great spot for him.”
It’s a gratifying achievement for Utter, the former walk-on from Papillion-La Vista who contemplated giving up on football before offseason injuries in 2014 opened spots on the depth chart.
He wasn’t on the 105-man August camp roster his first two years. He spent much of that time reshaping his body while he battled to make an impression as a scout teamer. He leaned on friends for support. He saw other walk-ons succeed, and found motivation in their triumphs. He called Mom, a lot.
“Most of those were me not wanting to play anymore,” he said.
But he didn’t quit. He couldn’t. He thought he belonged at this level.
And now he has the job he’s been working for: first-team center. He earned a scholarship a year ago. He’s set to graduate in December. He was named a team captain Saturday.
“Once you actually get your shot and are able to prove yourself, that’s a nice feeling,” he said.
He’s certainly not satisfied, though. His disciplined approach hasn’t changed.
He still makes sure to have a football in his hand for every offensive line drill, even the ones without defenders. Snapping the ball and stepping into a block — that has to be muscle memory, he said.
He’s already made a weekly appointment with Cavanaugh. To watch game tape. To go over blocking schemes. To ensure they’re on the same page. NU’s starting center last season, Ryne Reeves, did the same thing.
A lapse by the center? It could spoil an entire play. It’s true that all the linemen will echo line calls Saturday — but Utter has the final word. When they’d take offseason tests, he was the guy everyone looked at first. They’ll do the same Saturday.
Utter says he’s ready.
“I’ve wanted this position,” he said. “I feel like I’ve got a good knowledge for the game. I want to be able to use that on the field. I know that center’s the best way to do that.”